Surviving and advancing taking on a new meaning for scrappy Wildcats

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By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (KT) — Kentucky is still dancing and John Calipari showed off a few moves of his own after the Wildcats defeated Wofford Saturday to reach the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.


After a decade on the sidelines and his ninth appearance in the NCAA Tournament as coach of the Wildcats, Calipari still gets emotional when the Wildcats are victorious in any fashion, shape or form. It keeps the Kentucky coach yearning for more, especially when it comes to chasing a national championship.


“If winning is a relief, it’s time to retire,” he said. “I may not be showing it right now, but I danced in that locker room. I am ecstatic when my team wins.”


Calipari got even more excited when his team charted a path to victory without their leading scorer, PJ Washington to open the tournament. The meaning of surviving and advancing took on a new meaning for Kentucky after he suffered a foot sprain in a loss to Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference semifinals last weekend in Nashville. 


The Kentucky coach also doesn’t consider the “what ifs,” either, What if PJ Washington was healthy and played during the first two games of the tournament? Would the outcome had been more dominant? 


“I don’t think that way, and I don’t,” he said.


Washington went from walking boot to cast in a matter of four days and cheered on the Wildcats in wins over Abilene Christian and Wofford. Washington’s support was welcomed by his teammates and they weren’t surprised he was all smiles after the Wildcats defeated Wofford Saturday.


“He’s had our backs since the beginning,” freshman Keldon Johnson said.”Just him being on the sideline with us doesn’t surprise us. We always know that he has our backs.”


Johnson and his teammates have picked up the slack in Washington’s absence with a collective team effort, especially on the defensive end of the court. In addition, the calming presence of Ashton Hagans at the point and Reid Travis in the post also have proven to be beneficial during the first two rounds of the Big Dance.


Calipari praised Hagans’ performance against the Terriers but wants to see Hagans become more of a threat on the perimeter.


“I thought Ashton just has a will to win — you see him make every free throw, and then you say to yourself, he should probably shoot perimeter shots better,” Calipari said. “Again, it’s mental. Get in the gym more, build your own confidence, make a couple in the game, which he has this year. Last couple (of games) he’s not made shots. He’s got to get in this week and get ready for this weekend.”


Hagans is willing to put the team on his shoulders, especially if Washington isn’t cleared to play in the Midwest Region semifinals next weekend.


“I’m willing to take that so we can go as far as we can,” Hagans said. 


In moving forward, it’s not known whether or not Washington will play next weekend in Kansas City, but Calipari simply wants the Wildcats to stay the course and enjoy the ride.


“I just want my team in the hunt,” he said. “I want them playing at their best.”


Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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